by Chris Crabtree
Ole Reliable had a habit of going astray in a left turn, so frequently its owner had painted “Property of Zen Conlen 816-555-7878,” followed by his address, just in case the hubcap wandered away somewhere and didn’t come back, which had happened once.
It came via Priority Mail in a flat-rate box that also included a batch of chocolate chip cookies and a Hallmark card with a picture of a UFO crashing to the ground on the front and the words “Get Ros-well soon” on the inside. Someone had inscribed the following in blue ballpoint: “The hubcap you can keep, but I would like the cookies back when you are done with them.”
Getting cookies from a stranger, especially when they had such a crazy card with them, frightened Zen; there were so many things that were just wrong with the scenario. He knew never to trust a stranger, especially one who offered free homemade cookies. But they were chocolate chip! They were so enticing, but he didn’t want to take a chance on getting poisoned to death, so he did what any poor college student would do: fed one to the neighbor’s dog and monitored the situation for twenty-four hours. The dog lived, so he ate the cookies.
He would have replaced his problematic hubcap long ago, but he identified with Ole Reliable as if it were his own soul. You see, Zen imagined every soul as living in its own geospiritual space. Some souls were born in the sky. They defied gravity and were buoyant, even when forced by storm or adversity to the surface of the sea below, never sinking. Other souls were born in volcanoes, always hot with anger and discontent. Zen imagined his own soul had been born under the hubcap of a 1951 convertible at the bottom of a heap of disposable, late-model cars in a junkyard that time had forgotten.
He had watched Ole Reliable spin off and land in its usual spot in the patch of grass between the stop sign and the sidewalk on his way to class this morning. He hated the thought of his soul sitting all alone, baking in the sun all morning, but he was running late, as usual, so he had to pick it up on his way home.
The street was busy, but there was a small shopping center on one side, which gave him a place to park his car so he could get out to go grab the hubcap. Residents of nearby neighborhoods loved to walk their dogs on the sidewalk along this stretch of road. It was not altogether uncommon to see Zen here picking up his wayward hubcap. What was uncommon was having to say more than a simple “hello” or “nice dog” to anyone passing by, but today was an uncommon day.
“Is that your hubcap, dude?” came a voice from behind him.
“Yes,” Zen replied.
“I think my dog might have tinkled on it,” said the man in the Russian Ushanka hat who was walking his dog.
“You think he might have peed on my hubcap?” Zen asked.
“She,” the man corrected.
“You think she might have peed on my hubcap?”
“What?” Zen asked.
“You said ‘peed,’” the man clarified.
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s subtle, but it’s different.”
“Look, all I’m saying, dude, is maybe she tinkled a little.”
“Maybe?” Zen said. “What maybe? Did she, or didn’t she?”
“You know, it’s a possibility.”
“It’s one of the options.”
Zen was exasperated. “There are others?”
“Well…she might have…ya know…”
“Just a little,” the man said, pointing at the hubcap, “mostly on the edge. Glancing blow. You know—allegedly.”
“Allegedly? What are you, NPR?”
“No, name’s Bob Jones, not exotic enough sounding for them. You Zen?”
Zen started walking over to his car to see if he had something he could use to pick up Ole Reliable and not soil his hands. “That’s my name.”
“Why do you write your name in your hubcap?” the other man said as he followed.
“Why do you talk to strangers?” Zen countered.
“You live around here?”
“I tell you what, give me your address, and I will send you a Christmas card with the answer. That way we can be pen pals,” Zen said as he rifled through the contents of his hatchback, finding nothing to help him keep his hands clean.
“Okay, you got a pen, dude?”
“How’d you get a name like ‘Zen,’ anyway?”
“Well, it used to be ‘Zenwitch’ until one day when a poodle came along and tinkled on it, and the ‘witch’ melted away.”
“Oh, nice. Wizard of Oz reference, I get it. Are you going home now, Zenwitch?”
“You think I’m going to tell a stranger something like that?” Zen said, now exploring his glove box for something to pick up the hubcap with. Sometimes he carried a set of tongs in there—just in case he needed to assist in a roadside baby delivery.
“Stranger?” the man asked. “Who’s a stranger?”
“No way, man. Sophie and I feel like we know you. I can’t say with any certainty, but she has possibly tinkled on your hubcap many times, off and on, over the years.”
“Aha!” Zen had him. “So you admit that she peed on Ole Reliable!”
“I think I’ll be going now,” Zen said, too exasperated to care about getting his hands dirty. He started back to where Ole Reliable was lying in the grass next to the sidewalk.
“You going home, dude?” the man asked.
“Maybe,” Zen replied.
“Maybe? What maybe? You going home or not, dude?”
“That’s one of the options!”
“Can Sophie and me have a ride? Is that one of the options?”
“What kind of crazy idiot would give a stranger and his dog a ride…anywhere?” Zen said as he bent down to grab the hubcap.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you, dude.”
“Grab that hubcap with your naked hand, dude.”
“There might be a slight risk that there might be something kind of…unpleasant on it, dude,” the man reiterated.
“Yes! I am aware of that possibility. I also seem to be out of options—dude.”
“Oh, man, are you going to start ‘duding’ me now?”
“Ha! I’d like to do more than that!”
“Listen, dude, you need to relax, man. Do some yoga, some deep breathing, meditate on your other options.”
“There are no other options!”
“There’s an option you haven’t seen, my friend.”
“I’m not your friend! If you have another option, then just say it.”
“Sophie and I could help you.”
Zen was open to any suggestion the man may have. He was such a germophobe that if his hand brushed even the outside of a trash can when throwing something away, he would wash his hands. He wore latex gloves when sweeping up around the house, afraid to touch the wooden handle with bare hands. Even then, he would wash his hands when he took the gloves off, just in case there had been any “germ osmosis.”
“I could wash Old Reliable for you at my place, man. It is just a couple of blocks away,” the man offered.
“And you will hold it on the way?”
“Yeah, dude, you got a deal.”
Zen sighed and thought for a few seconds. “I can’t believe I’m going to do this. Okay, grab it and get in.”
The man and his dog got in Zen’s car. They had barely entered the roadway when the man asked, “Hey, by the way, can we stop by the grocery store on the way?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, I need to pick up some frozen peas.”
“Frozen peas? No milk?”
“No milk. Sophie and I like to munch on frozen peas while watching movies. Tonight, we’re watching Harold and Maude.”
“How about I take you to your house and you walk back to the store?” Zen asked. “It’s only a couple of blocks.”
“Sophie doesn’t like me to leave her alone.”
“So, take her with you.”
“You can’t bring a dog into the grocery store, dude.”
“So tie her up outside.”
“Oh, man, last time I tried that, she had caught a squirrel and was eating it when I came out of the store. It was freaking out all the moms and their kids.”
“She caught a squirrel…while on a leash?”
“She’s like a crocodile, man, she plays dead and motionless—like a log. When her prey gets close enough—BLAM—she snaps it up!”
Zen thought about it for a moment. This guy was really getting on his nerves, wearing him down. He began to think he should never have gone for his deal. “Okay, fine. But make it fast.”
The man went inside to buy his frozen peas. Almost immediately, Sophie started whining. Zen tried to calm her down. “It’s okay, Sophie. He’ll be back soon.” It didn’t work. Her whining only got louder as Zen’s patience got shorter until he was yelling, “Sophie! Shut up!” Then Zen had a thought. What if she needs to pee again? Oh, no, what if she pees in my car? He jumped out, threw open the back door, and grabbed Sophie’s leash. He led her to the only patch of grass he could find, in front of the neighborhood police station next door.
“Here you go, Sophie.” She started to “fertilize” the patch of grass just as a voice behind him said, “Ahem, excuse me, sir, but you are going to pick that up, aren’t you?”
“Um, well, not unless you happen to have a baggie,” Zen said.
“Do you have your dog’s license, sir?”
Zen looked up to see the police officer. “Oh, uh, she’s not my dog.”
“Didn’t I hear you call her ‘Sophie,’ sir?”
“Yeah, I mean, I know her name, but she’s not my dog.”
“Whose dog is she, sir?”
“What guy, sir?”
“He’s in the grocery store buying frozen peas.”
“Frozen peas? No milk?”
“No milk. He said he likes to eat frozen peas while watching Harold and Maude.”
“Ugh. He likes that movie?”
“I know, right, Officer?” He thought he was maybe starting to win the officer over.
“Yeah, well, be that as it may, I am going to have to go ahead and issue you with a citation for failing to pick up the poop and for walking your dog without its tags.”
“But it’s not my dog!”
“Tell that to the judge, kid,” the officer said, leaving him standing there with the leash in one hand and the ticket in the other. “Tell it to the judge.”
When Sophie’s owner came back, Zen told him what had happened. “You owe me $128, by the way. This is what I get for trying to do something selfless for someone!”
“But it wasn’t selfless, was it, Zen?”
“What do you mean it wasn’t selfless?”
“You were getting something out of the bargain, weren’t you?”
“I was giving a stranger and his dog a ride home!”
“But you were getting a clean hubcap out of the deal, now, weren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, sure, but you owed me that!”
“Did I?” the man asked.
“Okay, Mr. Zenwitch. Then a clean hubcap you shall have.”
The man was true to his word. When they got to his house, he took Ole Reliable inside and came back a short time later with it all shiny and new—or at least slightly less dingy and dull—and with $128 inside, like it was a Baptist collection plate.
“There you go, Mister Zen-man. Next time, maybe try really doing the selfless thing and see how it works out for you.”
BIO: Chris Crabtree is a singer/songwriter/musician who provided the soundtrack music for Corporate FM, a film that won the award for best documentary at the Kansas City Film Festival. He currently works for Apple, Inc. He wrote an album of songs that inspired him to write a book. His work has appeared in Children’s Hope International Quarterly and Helix.